How an Oxford Comma Determined the Fate of This Lawsuit

By George Khoury, Esq. on March 16, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A recent court decision out of Maine will likely be used in classrooms for generations to come. That's not because it tells a worthwhile story of American history, nor does it involve famous personalities, nor because it's so well written it merits inclusion in America's literary canon. Rather, it simply shows how significant an Oxford comma can be when determining the meaning of a sentence. And if you don't know what an Oxford comma is, read on, because, clearly, it's pretty important to writing clearly and effectively.

This case boiled down to one statute with a list of exemptions, separated by commas, except for the last exclusion. Essentially, dairy delivery drivers were claiming that under Maine law, they were entitled to overtime wages, despite their employer claiming they were excluded by the very same Maine law. However, that law is not so clear on whether delivery drivers would be exempt or not. And you guessed it, that ambiguity is the result of a missing Oxford comma.

Dairy Delivery Drivers Get Semantic

The specific statute that exempts certain employees in the food processing industry in Maine from overtime requirements states that an employee is exempt if they are involved in:

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1. Agricultural produce; 2. Meat and fish product; and 3. Perishable foods"

The specific part that states "packing for shipment or distribution" is the source of the problem resolved by the court. If distribution is considered separately from packing, then delivery drivers would clearly fall under the statute. However, without the Oxford comma separating "packing for shipment" from "or distribution," logic dictates that the word "distribution" relates to the verb-phrase "packing for."

So, rather than "distribution" referring to shipping or delivering the items listed in 1, 2, and 3, and therefore bringing delivery drivers within the exemption, the court decided that the phrase should be understood as "packing for distribution" and therefore did not apply to delivery drivers who don't pack shipments.

The judge in the case ruled in favor of the drivers due to fact that, traditionally, labor laws are designed to protect employees, and when ambiguity exists, it should be construed in favor of employees and not employers.

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